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They said weed science was dying, but then things changed

John Hart John_Hart_Farm_Press_Wes_Everman_Weeds.jpg
Wes Everman has been the Extension weed specialist for soybeans and small grains for 10 years. He has been on the job since 2011.
At the time, Roundup Ready herbicides were taking over the world.

Back in 2002, when Wes Everman was planning to pursue a Ph.D. in weed science, a number of professors discouraged him. They told him it was a dying field and that he would have a tough time landing a job come graduation.

At the time, Roundup Ready herbicides were taking over the world. Everman notes that one professor didn’t want to write a letter of recommendation for him to pursue a Ph. D because he saw no future in weed science.

Everman had just completed his master’s degree in weed science at Purdue University in 2002. He earlier earned his B.S. degree in Agronomic Business and Marketing from Purdue in 2000. Everman grew up on a farm in northeastern Iowa near Decorah. Everman’s grandfather ran the farm while his father was a local custom butcher.

For college, Everman said he bucked the trend and decided to go to Purdue instead of Iowa State University. As a boy, Everman had a passion for animals and could tell you all the breeds of hogs, cows, and chickens. He had originally planned to go into agricultural economics and pursue a career working with animals.

“I got into agronomy by accident. This was before the internet. Purdue sent out a brochure. One of the majors was agronomic business and marketing. I didn’t know what agronomy was. I thought agronomics was a clever play on agricultural economics: Agronomics. That sounded perfect so I checked the box on the brochure and sent it back,” Everman says.

When it came time for freshman orientation at Purdue the summer after high school graduation, Everman soon discovered he would be taking agronomy classes. “Where are all the business classes?” Everman wondered. 

Well, Everman’s adviser, Dr. Lee Schweitzer, encouraged him to stay in the program and said he could take business electives. Purdue is known for its good soil science program. At the time, Everman said he could care less about soils, but figured he was in college to learn things he knew nothing about, so he decided to stick with it.

Glyphosate dominant

Everman soon developed a passion for weed science research and decided to go on and earn his master’s and Ph.D. with the goal of working in research and Extension. However, a number of folks discouraged him because of glyphosate’s dominance in weed control across the country.

“Most people thought Roundup was the answer to everything. They believed all the other herbicides would be going away and it was all going to be Roundup. Glyphosate resistant horseweed did show up in 2000, but it wasn’t a terrible problem and it wasn’t across the country. It wasn’t until 2005 and 2006 when we started seeing glyphosate resistant Palmer amaranth,” Everman explains.

In fact, Everman explains that many good weed scientists who had just earned Ph.Ds. in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 did indeed have a tough time finding jobs because many universities were not filling weed science positions.

It turns out glyphosate resistance as well as resistance to other herbicides would indeed become a major issue beginning in the late 2000s. And now in 2021, the problem isn’t expected to go away anytime soon. It turns out Everman was spot on in his decision to pursue a career in weed science. “Some people said I had good foresight. I was actually just stubborn,” Everman says with a laugh.

Everman was accepted into the weed science program at North Carolina State University. “I was told if I really wanted to learn about weeds, I needed to go to the South where there really are weed problems. I learned there are a lot more weed issues down here than in the Midwest,” he says.

Everman completed his Ph.D. at North Carolina State in 2008. His thesis was using Liberty Link and Liberty Link crops for managing Palmer amaranth and other troublesome weeds. Upon graduation, he did indeed land a job as an Extension weed specialist at Michigan State University.

Return to Carolina

In 2011, a weed science position opened up at his alma mater, North Carolina State University, so Everman decided to apply and landed the position. There were budget cuts and uncertainty at Michigan State so Everman knew the time was right to return to North Carolina.

He’s been on the job for 10 years now and has no regrets about working in weed science and working in North Carolina. “This is right where I belong,” he says.

Everman says he has a passion for helping farmers solve their toughest weed problems. Everman is the Extension weed specialist for soybeans and small grains.

In Extension talks and field days, Everman has continually emphasized the challenges of herbicide resistance, encouraging farmers to use multiple modes of action and cultural practices such a cover crops in their weed control regiment.

In North Carolina, there has been confirmed “three way” resistance of common ragweed to glyphosate, PPOs, and ALS inhibitors. There is also expected Palmer amaranth resistance to PPOs in North Carolina, which still needs to be confirmed. Glyphosate resistant ryegrass has been confirmed in North Carolina.

Everman explains that all the herbicide resistance is a culmination of years of use.

“I feel like where we are now, if we use a single mode of action heavily, we will probably get about five years out of it because the large seed bank is aiding in the development of resistance. We selected for weeds that have an ability to adapt to different stressors,” Everman explains.

“Some biotypes have enhanced metabolism so that when a herbicide is used, that enhanced metabolic pathway can break it down. Some of the resistant biotypes out there will even survive applications of sprays they’ve never been exposed to before. They have a mechanism now that allows them to survive just about anything. Where do we go?”

One great hope is harvest weed seed control or seed mills that have found success in Australia. North Carolina is part of a nationwide grant beginning this year where Redekop and Harrington Seed Destructors will be tested to see if they can be effectively used here as they are in Australia. Everman has already lined up two farmers in North Carolina to try the system on their operations this year.

“I’m hoping we get widespread adoption before we lose chemicals. Reducing the seedbank is one of the best ways. If we can integrate harvest weed seed control, we can reduce the seeds going into the soil and reduce the seed bank. Ultimately you have fewer weeds coming up in those fields and you have less selection pressure on your herbicides,” Everman says.

Everman stresses that chemical control of weeds isn’t going away anytime soon, but additional tools such as harvest weed seed control should have a place. He is really hopeful the system will work in North Carolina.

One thing is certain, Everman believes he made the right decision when he decided to pursue a career in weed science research and Extension. He notes that weeds are genetically programmed to survive which means there will a need to find news ways to control them.

In fact, Everman encourages others to pursue a career in weed science. “There will always be work that needs to get done,” he says.

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